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Yuko's Catfish

By Sue Cowing

 ©copyright 2003 by Sue Cowing


Illustration by Mariano Santillan

© 2003 by Mariano Santillan

    A shiver went through Yuko, in spite of the heat. No, she said to herself, I am so hungry that I am imagining things.  Approaching one of the ponds in the streambed--by now it seemed little more than a puddle--she had seen a large, dark shadow moving in it. She shook her head and looked again. The shadow not only moved, it thrashed, splashing much of the remaining water out onto the cracked ground. And to Yuko’s surprise, a long gray whisker stuck out of the puddle.

    Yuko crouched closer to have a look. There in the water lay a big, fat catfish, a namazu, almost too big for her mother’s cooking pot!

    “Namazu-san!” Yuko said to the fish.  “How did you get here?”

    What a lucky find! In good times Yuko’s family grew plenty to eat. But now a long drought had dried up the stream, and the rice plants crackled in the wind. She knew if she brought the catfish home, her father would take his big knife, slit the fish down the back, then cut each half whack!  whack!  into three big chunks for her mother to cook. Even with no rice, it would be a feast.

    But the namazu looked hard at her with his clear eye and would not stop looking. Yuko knew she could not eat this fish.

    Glancing around to make sure no one saw her, she took off her scarf and soaked it well in the puddle. Then she wrapped the fish in the wet cloth and hurried away from her village, toward the nearby city of Edo. To Yuko’s amazement the big fish did not struggle or try to stick her with his sharp spines. Down the scorching road she went, not once stopping to rest, until she came to the banks of the Sumida River. There she lowered the fish into the cool water.

    “Food for five days!” Yuko’s mother wailed when Yuko told her what she had done.

    “Foolish child!” her father scolded.

    Yuko hung her head.

    Suddenly a great flash lit the whole house,

   Ka-raaaack went the thunder that followed, as though all the iron pots in the village had crashed to the floor.

    “What’s this?" cried Yuko’s father, and they ran outside.  Huge raindrops pelted their faces, their hands, the thatched roof, and the dusty ground. The smell of wet dust stung their noses.

    The villagers hurried out of their houses, carrying pots and jars to catch the water. Who knew how long the rain would last?

    For five days and five nights the water came down.  The ponds in the stream bed filled and overflowed, and crabs and fish swam back upstream to the village. When the downpour at last slowed to a drizzle, there was still time to plant more rice.

    As the villagers worked side by side in the muddy field, Yuko’s mother said,“It is Yuko’s namazu who has brought us this rain. We must be grateful.”

    “Don’t be silly,” the villagers said.“The rain is wonderful, but that was an ordinary catfish, good to eat. What a pity.”

    Yuko looked down at her feet. To cheer her up, the neighbors told her some of the old namazu stories they did believe.Stories about a giant catfish living underground who wriggles and causes earthquakes if not held down firmly by the stone god. Stories about namazu who assume human shapes and appear among men to warn them when at earthquake is coming.

    But Yuko’s family believed that her catfish had saved them. Her father carved a lively-looking namazu out of cypress wood to fasten above the door, and the family vowed not to eat catfish. When the other villagers passed by, they bowed low before the namazu figure, “Ah, Yuko’s catfish” they teased. “Such a special family,” and they went on their way, laughing. Worse, the village children  chanted “Catfish Girl, Catfish Girl,” behind Yuko on the way to school.

    Why did my father have to carve that fish? Yuko said to herself. Couldn’t he at least have hung it inside the house, not outside?

    Yuko often thought about the old namazu stories after that, and sometimes she was almost sure she saw a namazu-man. Once it was a peddler who came to their door dressed in old, gray clothes and smelling of river-bottom. Another time she was daydreaming and looked up to see the schoolmaster with a wide, fish-lipped smile on his face, twirling the long hairs of his moustache. But the next minute, the teacher was his old, dull self again.

    Whether it was because of Yuko’s namazu or not, the village continued to have good rains and plentiful crops.  When the selfish lords of the city of Edo noticed how much rice the village grew, they demanded more and more of it in taxes so they could build bigger, more elegant houses for themselves and wear kimonos woven with threads of silver and gold.

    Soon Yuko’s family was as desperate as they had been during the drought. One Autumn evening, when there was nothing but an old turnip on the table for their supper, Yuko’s father said they must soon leave their lands and move to Edo, where they would make sandals and pull carts on the streets.

    Just then there was a heavy pounding on the door.

    Yuko opened it and peered out. A frosty mist swirled outside, and all she could see through it was a large, dark shadow. After a long moment, the shadow spoke in a voice as deep as a temple bell.

    “Dokyo o sueyo!” said the voice.  “It is time.”

    Yuko shut and bolted the door, her heart thundering.  She braced her back against the rough wood until her breathing slowed down.  Then she lit a lantern, slowly lifted the bolt, and opened the door again.

    There before her, taller than her father, stood a samurai.  He wore full armor of dark gray leather, with a pattern of waves on his helmet.

    “It is time,” the voice  said again.

    After the first shock of seeing him, Yuko noticed that this samurai was not quite what he seemed. He had a flattened face and a wide mouth.  His moustache hung down in two long hairs, and his feet could not be seen at all.

    “Namazu-san!” Yuko exclaimed in amazement, dropping to her knees.

    The catfish-samurai bowed slightly. “A great earthquake is coming,” he said. “Tell your people.”

    An earthquake!  Didn’t they have trouble enough? For a moment she forgot her awe of the creature and blurted out, “So it is true what they say. You do bring disaster!”    The namazu laughed a wheezy laugh.  “Disaster?  Ah well.  We shall see.”

    Then his face grew serious again.  “Why do you stand there still? It is time!”

    Yuko ran to get her father and mother. But when they got to the doorway, there was only mist.

    “Come! Hurry!” said Yuko’s mother when she heard of the namazu’s warning. They ran around to all the houses of the village, urging people to put out their cooking fires and come outdoors. All but a few rushed from their houses with whatever quilts and warm clothing they had and prepared to spend the night in the cold.

    No one slept. Yuko was afraid that if she closed her eyes, a giant crack would open in the ground and swallow her up.  

    In the early hours of the morning, the trembling began.  The remaining villagers ran from their houses. At first the earth rippled like the surface of a stream in a light wind.  Then the ground roared and moaned, and the ripples turned to waves. Yuko and her mother and father clung to their quilt as if it were a small boat loose on the ocean.  Wave after wave rolled under them until they thought they would never be safe again. Not in the memory of the oldest villagers had there been an earthquake as strong as this one.

    Suddenly it stopped. Yuko braced herself for another shock, but there was only silence. “Look,” said her father, pointing upward.  “Fire!” In the distance, the sky over Edo glowed yellow and red.

    The next day, Yuko and her neighbors heard amazing news from the capital. The grand houses in the city had all collapsed or burned to the ground. The shogun was giving everyone food and shelter. Taxes were canceled, and debts were forgiven. For once no one had too little or too much, and everyone worked together to rebuild the city.

    Back in the village, people shook their heads over their good luck.  Some dishes had been smashed to bits by the quake, but the houses still stood and the fields were spared. In the coming year, there would be plenty of rice for everyone. Yuko smiled as she remembered the words of the namazu-samurai, “We shall see.”

    After the earthquake, the neighbors stopped teasing Yuko and her family about the namazu. And no one in Yuko’s village ate catfish again.      






Sidebar: Catfish and Earthquakes

     On the night of 2 October 1855, one of the worst earthquakes in Japan’s history shook Edo, now called Tokyo. Immediately after the quake, the ruler of Japan, the shogun, gave rice to the victims and ordered temporary shelters to be built. When even the shogun’s help was not enough, wealthy merchants contributed large amounts of rice and money. Did the townspeople thank the shogun or the merchants for this relief? No--they thanked the catfish! The namazu might be the destroyer of Edo, but he was also the savior, the rescuer.  Wasn’t it the earthquake that caused the government to be so generous?  Because of the earthquake, didn’t everyone have a fresh start?

    Soon thousands of namazu-e or “catfish pictures” appeared in the city streets. Some of the catfish prints showed the god of fortune splitting the namazu open and coins spewing out of the fish, or the catfish himself making the merchants spit out their own coins. In one picture a namazu, dressed as a peddler, sells people a potion that reverses bad luck and cures poverty.  The writing on these pictures predicts the beginning of many years of good fortune.

    But what about the idea that catfish can predict earthquakes? Even in recent times fishermen have reported catfish behaving strangely just before quakes.  Scientists in Japan decided to study this phenomenon.  Their experiments proved that catfish can sense low-level vibrations that even seismographs don’t pick up. In response to tremors, these normally sluggish bottom fish crowded to the surface and jumped around frantically in their tanks.

    But the catfish reacted just as strongly to the small, harmless vibrations Japan experiences every day as they did to the tremors that later became serious quakes.  If Japan went on earthquake alert every time the catfish thrashed, the country would come to a standstill.

    Most seismologists say there is still no reliable way to predict earthquakes.  So the Japanese live with uncertainty. Government posters--some with pictures of catfish on them--advise people always to be prepared.


--Sue Cowing

from Cricket Magazine, May 2003

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